Israeli soldier guilty of British activist's manslaughter

Date: 06-27-05

ASHKELON, Israel (AFP) - An Israeli soldier has been convicted by a military court of the manslaughter of British peace activist Tom Hurndall two years after he was shot in head in the occupied Gaza Strip.

Sergeant Taysir Wahid was convicted on Monday by a court near the southern city of Ashkelon over the death of Hurndall, an activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who was shot in the Rafah refugee camp in April 2003.

Hurndall died in January 2004 in a London hospital after spending nine months in a persistent vegetative state.

Palestinian medics and witnesses said Hurndall, wearing a fluorescent jacket with ISM initials on it, was trying to pull two Palestinian children out of danger when shots were fired from a nearby army watchtower in April 2003.

Wahid was convicted of a total of six charges, including obstructing justice and providing false testimony as well as conduct unbecoming a soldier.

He had initially said that 22-year-old Hurndall had first opened fire but later signed a deposition in which he admitted firing in the direction of an unarmed civilian.

A sentencing hearing is to be held on July 5 for Taysir, a Bedouin scout who can neither read nor write Hebrew.

Hurndall's father Anthony told reporters after the verdict that the case had underlined a culture of impunity for Israeli soldiers operating in Gaza.

"We are concerned about the culture in which this incident took place," he said outside the courtroom.

"We are concerned that there is a policy which seems to be prevalent in Gaza among the Israeli soldiers and army that they feel able to shoot civilians really without any accountability whatsoever.

"So there are two issues here: one, the apparent tacit policy that seems to be in place that the Palestinian civilians are fair game; and that there is no accountability."

A spokesman for the British embassy said that Tom's brother William was refused entry at Israel's Ben Gurion airport and was forced to turn back to London without being able to attend the hearing.

Reports said that William had been told that he would be allowed in only if he agreed to a string of restrictions.

His lawyer Avigdor Feldman filed a petition to overturn the conditions saying that William had "expected to be treated respectfully and not to face an arbitrary slamming of doors and the stipulation of harsh terms."

There was no response about the decision to refuse entry from the Israeli government.

Several ISM activists have been wounded by the army in the course of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which erupted in September 2000.

An army investigation into the death of 23-year-old US national and ISM activist Rachel Corrie concluded that her being crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah in March 2003 had been an accident.

The Israeli rights group Btselem said that the conviction over the Hurndall killing was "the exception that proves the rule", saying that prosecutors avoided opening military police investigations in all but exceptional cases.

The organisation said that innocent Palestinian victims were much less likely to receive justice, saying that Israeli forces had killed at least 1,722 Palestinians not involved in hostilities but in only two cases were soldiers convicted of causing the death of a Palestinian.

"The judge advocate general's policy not to open military police investigations into the killing of civilians sends IDF (Israel Defence Forces) commanders and soldiers the message that it is unlikely they will be held accountable for harming civilians," a Btselem statement said.

A report last week by Human Rights Watch said that "the government's failure to investigate the deaths of innocent civilians has created an atmosphere that encourages soldiers to think they can literally get away with murder."



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